Just a Girl: Why Girlhood Still Matters in Music

“The future is female.”

It’s an old slogan from a 1970s shirt and by looking around these days, the future is already here. Lady Gaga became the first woman to headline Coachella in 10 years, Bozoma Saint John of Apple Music raised the bar for all women, particularly of color, within the upper echelons of tech, and Beyoncé gave us a timeless masterpiece with Lemonade to uplift generations of women to come.

Songs for and about women have been around forever. Before Cyndi Lauper just wanted to have fun and Trina dubbed herself the “baddest bitch,” women have been using songs to express their struggles, triumphs and sexuality. Even the women’s suffrage movement had an anthem song, “March of the Women.” Search for “girl power playlist” and watch your screen fill up with hundreds upon thousands of songs dedicated to women’s reality.

But what about music about simply being a girl?

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Kilo Kish (Artist-Singer)

Girlhood is a time defined by growth, and the music that exists for and about girls tends to explore this. In mainstream music we listen to them trip over boys, fall into trends, slide in and out of personas and bruise themselves seeking perfection. Major labels carefully craft artist role models to deliver the woes of girlhood usually through cutesy pop songs, which for the most part are commercially driven and lacking in depth.

However, music from popular alternative female singers today is increasingly full of youthful whimsy and hazy melodies fueled by nostalgia and childhood relics. As they stand in stark contrast to the Britneys and Christinas, their rise rejects the industry notion that female artists can only go from young girls to sexualized stars if they want a successful career. Pop stars of the late 1990’s rushed to womanhood and their sexuality was quickly matured for the sake of sales and popularity.

But is music for girls that’s more nuanced and complex, finally in style?

It is, thankfully, from girls who are more left of center and refreshingly counterculture in recent years.

Take Willow Smith. After her breakout single, “Whip My Hair,” she took her career in an unconventional direction. She stopped making pop music and turned her pen towards self-exploration and finding interest in esoteric and spiritual themes.

But she got shit for it. From the moment she shaved her head, she’s had to deal with waves of criticism. She’s been called a wack job and weirdo. The New York Post even ran a piece calling her and her brother Jaden “ego monsters” and shaming their parents. She courageously shot back at critics with her song “I Am Me,” a gentle reminder to all that she’s still young and in the process of finding herself.

 

willow smith amandla stenberg

Despite her young age, Willow Smith is self-aware and she understands how the world perceives her. In an interview with Amandla Stenberg for Dazed, she talked about the criticism she gets for her unconventional viewpoints. But guys, she gets it. She knows that her and her brother’s ideas are pretty unorthodox but she won’t let the negative comments keep her down.

Lorde takes a different route. Throughout her first album, Pure Heroine, 16-year-old Lorde explored adolescence in all its gore and glory; chasing things that aren’t serious and nobly accepting her entry into adulthood. She’s critical, questioning the vices and messages the media sells to her and her friends, preferring to do away with it all.

“We’ll never be royals/ it don’t run in our blood,” the stand out line from her debut single “Royals” is a triumphant acceptance of her social stature. Though she is not proud of her address, she “craves a different kind of buzz,” one that is not fascinated by celebrity culture.  She told W Magazine that growing up in New Zealand the concept of fame wasn’t a big deal stating that “it’s cool, but [she] never really cared about it that much.”

 

Lorde
Photo by C. Flanigan/WireImage

Lorde’s presence is refreshing. She is blunt and open with her emotions. Her cynicism and indifference is freeing and she seems impervious to the trappings of fame.

In a sprawling letter titled “A Note From The Desk of A Newborn Adult,” she ruminates on the end of her teenage years. For most of her life she writes that she was “obsessed with adolescence, making a monument of it and seeing it as a time of life that gleamed.” Pure Heroine, she says, is a shrine to teenage glory. That time is behind, and now, she’s making her trials and errors in being an adult.

Willow and Lorde are young women whose interests and music deviate from the mainstream but are still relatable if you’ve ever been a young lady. They’re still naive, but they have complete control of the people they want to be.

If Pure Heroine is a shrine to teenage glory, then SZA’s catalog is an ode to the girl next door who still wants to be the girl next door. Much of SZA’s work is at odds with her current pop contemporaries. While overt sex appeal is the typical standard that female artists are held to, she’s not concerned with it. Instead she relies on hallmarks of her childhood as the base for her catalogue’s narrative. SZA wants you all to know that she’s still trying nail down this whole adult thing.

In her navigation through womanhood, old childhood feelings come up: “Wish I was prettier a little for ya/ Maybe I’ll understand when I get older,” she sings in “Castles.” When dealing with these notions becomes too much, she retreats to the comforts of her childhood. “I am made of bacon, fairy tales, pixie dust, I don’t feel,” she sings in “Aftermath.” She’s made herself bulletproof from the realities of now by filtering her identity through childhood fantasies.

Artists like SZA, Willow Smith, Lorde and others, are not racing towards womanhood. They’re in fact prudent in their approach, taking this stage step by step.

Sza

A girl’s story never ends at 18 or 21 or even 50. There will always be moments that bring women back to their teenage years. Handling life gets easier over the years, but at each new stage, you hearken back to those moments of uncertainty, even if just for a moment. It’s important for girlhood to slowly be relished and embraced in music and life; it never really ends, and getting old will always be a little bit scary to all of us.

Chinwe Oniah